the canteens’ puzzle in the face of inflation

Will the price of meals in the canteen increase? At least that is the option that many municipalities could take for 2023. The mistake is the increase in the price of raw materials combined with a supply deficit. As a reminder, the rise in food prices was up 12% in October, a rate twice as fast as inflation (+6%). And the waltz of labels is not over, as other increases can still be expected. What further weakens the collective catering sector, which is already in bad shape after the Covid-19 pandemic. “We have assessed our needs to deal with this crisis: it is 45 cents extra for every meal to meet both food problems and deal with inflation”, explains Marie-Cécile Rollin, director of Restau’Co, the interprofessional network of collective catering. An amount that is far from neutral if we consider that the cost of meals varies between 1 euro and 7 euros depending on the family’s income.

Increase the price of meals so as not to go into the red

To avoid disasters, half of the French municipalities have already asked parents to put their hands in their pockets, others have preferred to dip into their own funds. There is no doubt that this topic will be the subject of a large part of the discussions of the municipalities’ budgets for the year 2023.

Other measures have also been implemented so as not to penalize taxpayers’ budgets. Certain quality products are thus excluded from the menus, especially organic products, which are on average more expensive than conventional products. “Even if inflation was lower on ecology, it is easiest to exclude in order to create room for maneuver”explains Marie-Cécile Rollin.

Another way to save money is to fight waste. “We are reworking the offer with shorter menus, fewer starters, dishes… it also helps to fight food waste, which is a major expenditure item”, specifies the Elior group. In 2016, Ademe had estimated the costs of waste in public catering at 27 øre per meal and up to 68 øre if we included indirect costs such as time in the kitchen, the waste bill… Some canteens have decided to offer menus with four components instead of five, i.e. a choice between the starter or the cheese.

Ecological crisis: “Demand disappears when we reach self-sufficiency”

The vegetarian option, an interesting lever

Another option is to increase the range of vegetarian dishes. Cooking without meat is generally cheaper, provided you prepare ingredients. An option that is all the more interesting since vegetable dishes are more accepted.

“Today there is not only an increase in the price of raw materials, there is also a problem with the supply of meat, especially poultry, with the bird flu. These two factors mean that we have an acceleration in the acceptance of vegetarian dishes,” emphasizes Marie-Cécile Rollin.

But this solution has difficulty developing. The fault is a problem with staff training in the vegetarian kitchen, which does not allow them to offer varied and appetizing meals without animal protein. “The problem is that initially there is a strong tendency to buy processed products for the vegetarian solution, which is just as expensive as meat. But in the long term, this choice is strategic. Lille, for example, saved 20 øre for each vegetarian meal offered”emphasizes Sarah Bienaimé, advocacy officer at Greenpeace.

Problem: If the vegetarian option is increasing, it may well come across a new version of the 2011 decree on the quality of menus in school canteens, proposed by the ministries of agriculture, transitional ecology and health in the coming months.

EGALIM’s goal is still far from being reached

Today, it is mandatory to have a vegetarian menu per week with the EGALIM Act, supplemented by the possibility of offering a vegetarian option at every meal for the municipalities that want it. An alternative that is currently being tested in more than 200 cities. But the ministries now want to include the duty to eat fish and meat for health reasons in the law, which would cancel de facto the offer of vegetarian dishes every day.

For Greenpeace, on the other hand, it would be a bad idea to cancel the vegetarian option, because it is a good alternative to meet both the sustainability and economic challenges, and the demand is high. “According to our data, vegetarian dishes are chosen 25% of the time when offered, which is huge. »

Collective catering therefore tries to juggle between the state’s desire to improve the quality of the meals and the need not to offer excessively expensive dishes. A delicate situation in these times of inflation, and which particularly punishes the organic sector. Laure Verdeau, director of Agence bio deplored, in an interview with The gallery recently, the lack of organic products in this sector. While the law requires 50% sustainable products including 20% ​​organic, collective catering is barely 6%. The road to achieving EGALIM’s goals still seems long.

Sodexo gets off to a strong start

Sodexo published its commercial results for the year on Friday 6 January. In its first quarter, i.e. between September and November 2022, and while food basket inflation was at its peak, the collective catering giant recorded a 20% increase in its turnover to reach €6.3 billion. An increase that is mainly explained by a favorable exchange rate between the dollar and the euro. The company is doing well thanks to its market outside of France, which has allowed it to pass on the cost of inflation to its prices, unlike the French market. The group has announced organic growth targets of between 8% and 10% for 2023.

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